Posted in English 1103, Teaching, Writing

ENG 1103: Beginning the Creative Project

Today in class you will begin your creative project, which is a literacy narrative that recreates one of your learning experiences as a writer. The model literacy narrative that I wrote for my students in 2019 appears below.

Too Many Words: Reflections on Research

I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.

Posted in English 1103, Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 1103: Midterm Reflections

In class this morning we returned to the sample student reflections that we examined before spring break, and we also read and discussed the model midterm reflection that I wrote for my students last fall. The revision of that reflection, which I published on my blog in October, appears below.

Tiles, Pens, and Laptops: Reflections on Word Building

Although I have read Matt Richtel’s article “Blogs vs. Term Papers” many times, this semester marked the first time I had studied it as an exercise in analysis. Ordinarily, I include Richtel’s article on the syllabus as a prologue to my students’ own blogging. The article served that purpose in August as well. But as I found myself teaching a different composition curriculum that features an analysis as the first major paper assignment, Richtel’s article served a dual purpose: It not only oriented my students to the role that blogs would play in the class, it also provided them with the opportunity to study the way a writer—in this case, Matt Richtel—presents the ideas of the experts he interviews. By reading Richtel’s article, the students learned about changes in writing practices in college classrooms; by rereading Richtel, they began to see how his writing takes shape. The same was true for me.

The process of crafting a study of “Blogs vs. Term Papers” prompted me to meditate on the similarities between analysis and Scrabble, another feature of the course. The more I examined Richtel’s words, the more details I noticed. Similarly, the more closely I study the words on a Scrabble board and the tiles on a rack, the more opportunities for word building become apparent to me. This semester, the processes of writing an analysis of “Blogs vs. Term Papers” and playing Scrabble have deepened my understanding of how those two activities cultivate the focus that leads to the discoveries intrinsic to learning.

One of those moments of discovery occurred for me as I was rereading the paragraph in Richtel’s article where he addresses an argument put forth by experts who frown on replacing the term paper with the blog. Richtel reports their claim that if teachers want to reduce term papers to blog posts, why not bypass blogs altogether and ask nothing more of their students than tweets? In my previous readings of the paragraph, I was drawn primarily to the clever mimicry at the end. There Richtel omits letters from the words “Sherman’s March,” spelling it as “Shermn’s Mrch” to imitate the word-shortening technique characteristic of the Twitter platform.

As I studied the paragraph more closely, I saw beyond the intentional misspellings at the conclusion. Subsequently, what preceded the imitation of Twitterese became far more revealing. I noticed that the paragraph consisted of only one sentence—one of only two one-sentence paragraphs in the article—and that Richtel’s presentation of the claim demonstrates a flaw in the experts’ logic: “Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?” Realizing that Richtel presented one of their assertions as a logical fallacy, led me to this point:

To assert that defenders of traditional academic writing carry their opponents’ argument   to an absurd conclusion presents those advocates of old-school writing as purveyors of the same flawed logic that their own traditional rhetoric supposedly teaches students to avoid.

Additionally, I considered the effect of choosing to present the fallacy as a one-sentence paragraph, noting that “[b]y introducing an apparent contradiction in the argument of the advocates of old-school writing, Richtel subverts their claim; and by presenting that incongruity as a one-sentence paragraph, he highlights the issue.”

Reflecting on the effect of the one-sentence paragraph, with its emphasis on a single idea, led me to reexamine the other one-sentence paragraph in the article. That paragraph, a sentence spoken by Professor Cathy Davidson of the City University of New York, underscores the prominence of her words and ideas in Richtel’s article, an observation of mine that led me to the thesis, that “[a]lthough Richtel’s article appears to present an objective account of the disagreements among experts, a close examination of the diction and structure of ‘Blogs vs. Term Papers’ reveals a preference for the innovations advocated by Davidson and Lundsford.”

Rereading Richtel’s article through a writer’s lens showed me details I had scarcely noticed before, ones that now in plain view lead me to ask repeatedly, How could I have missed that? It’s a question I have also found myself asking when a word emerges from a seemingly hopeless combination of Scrabble tiles. Sometimes my students chide themselves for what they didn’t see on the board or the rack, but those realizations are almost always part of the composing process, whether we’re building words with tiles, or pens, or laptops. The closer we look, the more we discover, which is learning in its purest form.

Works Cited

Lucas, Jane. “ENG 1103: On its Face, Who Could Disagree with the Transformation?: Revisiting Richtel’s Report on the Blog-Term Paper Question,” Jane Lucas, 9 Sept. 2021, https://janelucas.com/2021/09/20/ eng-1103-on-its-face-who-could-disagree-with-the-transformation-revisiting-richtels-report-on-the-blog-term-paper-question/.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2012,  https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html.

Next Up

In class on Wednesday, we will review the citation worksheet that I distributed in class today. Afterward, you will have the remainder of the class period to devote to composing your short reflective essay on your midterm reflection.